Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 15

Chapter 15: Naturalism, Scientism and the Screwdriver that could Fix Almost Anything
Before we get into it, I have to make a few comments about Randal’s style of philosophy, or rather, theology. By my judgment, there seems to be two camps of religious philosophers, systematic rationalists and apologetic theologians. Rationalists care about trying to approach philosophical concepts objectively, and usually consider all the objections before laying out the ground work for their argument (e.g., Graham Oppy’s Arguing About Gods and The Best Argument Against God), whereas most apologetic theologians begin with the assumption their argument is valid without having established the warrant of their argument to begin with, and then try to take down all the counter arguments commonly raised by other philosophers. Randal is definitely that latter camp.

But I’d place Randal in the latter camp for another reason as well. Like William Lane Craig, who considers himself a serious philosopher, Randal too seems to entertain the notion that because he has a theology degree he is a bona fide philosopher. I would argue that even if you have a theology degree, like the aforementioned Craig and Rauser, you may still not be a serious philosopher. Luigi Giussani and John Shelby Spong would be an examples of theologians who were also serious philosophers while Randal Rauser and William Lane Craig are good examples of the latter, apologist breed. Those that approach religious questions with honesty and objectivity are, in my opinion, real philosophers of religion—and they should be allowed to call themselves philosophers even if they have a degree in theology. Randal, however, unfortunately falls into the group that I do not consider serious philosophers. Rather, they seem to merely pose as philosophers when they realize that the majority of philosophers they engage with do not take their theology degree seriously.

Recently Clinton Wilcox, a fellow member of the “Christian Apologetics Alliance” to which Randal belongs, criticized Randal’s standing as a serious philosopher.[1] Randal went to great lengths to defend himself, but both men are technically mistaken in the claim that either of them practices philosophy. They do not.

The problem is that unlike many Christian historians, who are often highly objective in their assessment of historical events regarding past events relating to Christianity, the Christian theologian frequently allows his presuppositions about the legitimacy of their faith to bias their judgment in favor of said chosen faith.

As such, this is not practicing philosophy so much as it is a form of apologetics in which the theologian utilizes the language of philosophy to sound more authoritative. Therefore we find a type of sophistry is at play behind the agenda of the theologian who wants the philosophical community to take their claims serious, and who wants to convince the general public that they have more authority to speak on their topics than they may actually have.

I apologize for going on at length about this issue, but I found it fascinating that one of Randal’s fellow Christian apologists has contested Randal’s credibility as a genuine philosopher. It’s not only intellectual atheists like me who think so, and I find that comforting. After all, it means I’m not entirely mistaken in my objections to Randal and his beliefs.

With that said, let’s get back into the book, shall we? Last time we left off with Dr. Ferry catching Randal and Sheridan talking about him behind his back, and chapter 15 opens with an awkward silence.

But don’t worry, apparently Dr. Ferry isn’t brought into the conversation. Such a pity too, as I was hoping to have a moderator for this next half of the book. Instead, Randal decides it’s time we talked about the plausibility of the supernatural and the question of epistemic justification.

I know, right? Right when you thought the conversation was going to gain some much needed coherence, he brings up two topics all at once!

Jumping right in, Randal asks:

“What justifies your belief that there is no supernature and that everything is explicable in terms of science? … What is your positive argument for naturalism?”

Sheridan then informs that he’s not pretending to have all the answers, but mentions that

“I don’t know how consciousness or free will works, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to conclude right away that ‘God did it’! That’s just the ‘god of the gaps’ fallacy. What I am saying is that the scientist has proven to be the go-to person to understand the world. Scientists keep explaining more and more of the stuff that we used to explain with religion, like weather events and diseases. So why wouldn’t you think that science could eventually explain everything?”

What I like about Sheridan’s argument here is that it seems to be a genuine atheist objection and not just a parody of one. Nonetheless, Randal objects.

“Because that doesn’t follow! Look… you believe that science can explain everything. That’s a form of ‘scientism.’ But there’s more, because you’re not only making a claim about science’s ability to explain whatever exists. You’re also claiming that no supernature exists.”

Now, before we continue, I have to object to Randal’s usage of the term ‘scientism’. Scientism is nowhere an accurate reflection of the naturalist position, and it is commonly used only as a pejorative term. In fact, one problem with scientism is that although it holds the methods of natural science as the only proper element of any philosophical discussion, it would just as soon reject theism as it would naturalism if naturalism ever proved to have features that simply couldn’t be explained by science. That is, scientism does not allow for eternal mysteries, which is why many natural philosophers do not accept it as a valid position.

Only theists, and more so apologists, like to toss around the term to describe those that hold naturalism to be true. In his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci reminds us that

“The fact that scientism is an insult, not a philosophical position that anybody cares officially to defend, is perhaps best shown by the fact that there is no noun associate with it: if one engages in scientism one is “being scientistic,” not being a scientist.”[2]

Scientism has been a derogatory term since the physicist E. Rutherford first said, “…there is physics and there is stamp collecting.” His critique was regarding pseudo-scientists who thought in supernatural terms about science, not so much dualism as a misapplication of science, and therefore criticized them by labeling their misconstrued science as an –ism. Rutherford’s gist was that by supplying the –ism, he was criticizing those who were not practicing science—they, in fact, were practicing a form of philosophy (specifically positivism, hence the –ism).

At its best, however, the term scientism is only a crass reductionism of the actual philosophy of science. In fact, scientism, as Pigliucci observed above, is not even considered a real philosophy. Unlike the philosophy of science, which does rely on the scientific method to gain credibility, scientism does not. Moreover, scientism lacks skepticism (part of being related to positivism), and skepticism is vital to philosophical inquiry, thus scientism can’t be relied on as a proper philosophy in the proper sense.

The fact that Randal resorts to using the pejorative term ‘scientism’ is revealing. It reveals that he is neither a real philosopher and, at the same time, reveals he misunderstands the naturalist position. Which I’m sure he is going to talk on in length.

“[T]he naturalist is one who says that everything that exists is either matter/energy or supervenes upon matter/energy.”

We might be tempted to grant Randal’s his definition of naturalism here, as it sounds fair. But it’s not without its problems. Naturalism, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, is: the view that ultimately nothing resists explanation by the methods characteristic of the natural sciences. It’s not merely the belief that matter and energy is all there is, but rather, all there is can be explained by science. Unlike scientism, however, naturalism doesn’t defy the unknown mysteries of the universe, but leaves room for the chance that some things may not be immediately explainable, due to our own limitations, but not the limitations of science. Scientism merely would reject anything that could not apparently be immediately explained via science.

Naturalism also takes into account morality, whereas scientism, not being a real philosophy, does not.

Most widely, naturalism includes any belief that the nature of ethical thinking is exhaustively understood in terms of natural propensities of human beings, without mysterious intuitions, or operations of conscience, or divine help. (ODP, 2008)

Randal asks Sheridan, “Why do you think that scientism and naturalism are true?”

I don’t think any serious philosopher thinks scientism is true. So we’ll ignore the fact that Randal keeps on using it. As for naturalism, I suggest Randal, and anyone else who has problems with naturalism, read Graham Oppy’s book The Best Argument Against God, in which Oppy posits that naturalism is, in fact, the best overall objection to classical theism. Oppy informs us that:

“Naturalism is a better theory than Theism: for Naturalism is simpler than Theism, and all of the considered data is explained at least as well by Naturalism as it is by Theism. The argument for Naturalism is novel both in outline, and in the details of the case that there is no data that Theism explains better than Naturalism does.”[3]

Sheridan grows tired of Randal’s goading him into trying to defend all of naturalism, and who’s to blame him? After all, Sheridan isn’t even a philosopher yet, just a student. Randal is a professor, but he’s acting more like a door to door Evangelist. Sheridan then turns the magnifying glass around and asks Randal what does he think science won’t be able to explain? Randal informs:

“Ethics, aesthetics, free will, consciousness, all sorts of things. Science is obviously successful in its sphere, but it doesn’t follow that it can explain everything.”

Well, technically speaking, science is more than successful, it’s proved reliable. In addition to this, it does not follow that science will not be able to explain everything either. But we cannot say either way, because of the limitations of our own understanding. However, there’s nothing within the scientific method that limits its explanatory powers. Randal merely assumes it can’t explain these things, but if he’s proved wrong tomorrow, he loses more than just the argument. He would lose all of his defenses for theism as well, and his belief would merely amount to a profession of faith—minus any reason to believe. No wonder Randal rejects naturalism so adamantly!

Sheridan then makes the strange statement that he doesn’t think naturalism can be proved true. Really, this seems an appeal to ignorance more than anything. I don’t know why Randal (real world Randal) has Sheridan say this or what he intends by it, but Randal points out that no atheist or nontheist would accept it if a theist said that although they couldn’t prove theism, it’s true nonetheless. He’s right, but this whole section is confused and I didn’t get what point he was trying to make here.

Sheridan than states, “I don’t see any reason that science won’t explain ethics and art someday.”

Randal then decides to let this go and nitpick a bad analogy Sheridan used (but which real world Randal simply forced Sheridan to use). In order to prove the analogy wrong, Randal decides to use a different analogy.

Randal starts by telling us about the story of Don and his new screwdriver. It’s important to quote the full story, but knowing how Randal likes to carry on, please forgive the length.

“One day Don bought a new screwdriver with a shiny red handle and a number of removable bits. With great aplomb Don began using his new screwdriver for slotted screws of all different sizes. But then one day he discovered that it had another bit that fit Phillips screws, and soon he was off again working on every Phillips screw in sight. Shortly thereafter he encountered a strange screw with a square hole. For awhile (sic) he tried jamming in various slotted and Phillips bits, but nothing worked. Then, just when Don was about to throw in the towel, he discovered a square bit! Yes, his screwdriver could even handle that strange Canadian import, the Roberston screw. Don was positively enamored with his screwdriver and its seemingly limitless use on the construction site. If you needed to screw anything up, Don was the man to do it… One day Don’s fellow workers were shocked to see him attempting to hammer in a nail with the handle of his screwdriver. Tentatively they informed him that his screwdriver was made for screws, and that the driving of nails requires a hammer, not a screwdriver—even one as fine as Don’s. But, alas, Don would not listen. So impressed was he with the power of his tool to put every screw in its place that he became convinced it must be good for nails, too. Later in the day Don was seen trying to cut a plank of wood with the screwdriver. As the other workers packed up for the night, Don could be spotted attempting to sand a banister with his screwdriver. Needless to say, all he succeeded in doing was gouging the wood. Poor Don never learned the important lesson that even the best tools have their limits.”

All this just so Randal can opine that science has limitations.

Of course, as I mentioned above, the limitations of science are not at all clear to us. Randal merely assumes science cannot answer things, without giving it any further consideration. He may or may not be right, but without taking to task the question of whether or not science truly does have limitations, we cannot merely assume it, as Randal does.

It seems this whole chapter was written merely to allow Randal to say science doesn’t cut it, therefore God. Which is why I started the look at this chapter with a little criticism of Randal’s philosophy, because clearly, he doesn’t seem to be interested in investigating the questions, such as whether or not science really has limits, instead he’d rather just assert that science is limited (without justifying such a claim) and then throw around the pejorative label of ‘scientism’ for anyone who dares to disagree with him.

Seeing as how the last three chapters have been exclusively apologetics and not so much real philosophical investigations, I’m not expecting to be blown away by chapter 16, “God as a Simple Answer.” Even the title makes me cringe. But we shall see what we shall see.

[2] Massimo Pigliucci, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, The University of Chicago Press, 2010, loc. 3334-37 Kindle.
[3] Graham Oppy’s summation of the books thesis. See The Best Argument Against God, Palgrave Macmillin, 2013.


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